Category Archives: Biography

Welcome Diane Dettmann

Please join me in welcoming Diane Dettmann to Highlighted Author.


Diane is an author, presenter and teacher. She was a literacy staff developer and taught at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls. She co-authored Miriam Daughter of Finnish Immigrants and presented the book at international conferences in Finland and Canada.  Diane was recently featured in the national education association today This Active Life. Her inspiration has touched and helped others through their healing after a death of a loved one.  “Working your way through grief after the death of a loved one takes energy and courage,” says Diane. Often angels float in and out offering support. The sudden death of my husband at the age of 54 surrounded me with many angels. Friends, family and total strangers floated into my life just when I needed them most.”

Diane lives in Afton, Minnesota, where she enjoys writing and spending time with her loving husband, Allan.


Welcome, Diane, please tell us about yourself.

I’ve enjoyed writing ever since I was five years old. As child, I often sat on the front porch steps and scribbled nonsense words on a rainbow tablet. I started journaling in junior high and took creative writing classes in high school. My tenth grade English teacher read aloud to us everyday and inspired me to follow my writing bliss. As an elementary teacher and literacy trainer in the public schools, I encouraged students to express their creative energy in dance, art and most of all—writing which in turn nurtured mine. My master’s program in “Curriculum and Instruction” pushed me deeper into the writing realm as I researched and wrote my thesis paper, “The School of Bliss: A School Designed for Students’ Happiness” which I presented at a national women’s conference in St. Paul, Minnesota. A year later, I began the rigorous process of National Board Teacher Certification that required hundreds of hours of writing. When I received my results, I was not only excited that I passed, but elated that I had received a perfect score on my writing section.

Being a self-motivated writer, I enjoy exploring new resources and ways to nurture my writing. I read books by authors like Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron and Anne Lamott. I love reading non-fiction, especially biographies and memoirs of famous people. The first biography I remember reading as a child was about Carol Heiss, the 1960’s Olympic figure skater. I couldn’t put the book down. It inspired me to practice another love in my young life—figure skating. My years of journaling and free writing were like ice-skating practice—they developed my writing skills while I enjoyed the flow of the pen across the page.

I finally got serious about writing in the 1990s. I started my own local writer’s group, “Quill and Thought,” published a few articles in education publications, and participated in writer’s nights where I read my work. In 2003, while reading journal entries about my husband’s illness and death, I realized how hard I had struggled to make sense of my life after the devastating loss. I knew I had a story in me, but was not sure how to share such a personal journey with the world.

In 2010, after rereading my journals and seven years of numerous starts, stops and working titles, I attended a writer’s conference in California. After nervously reading a section of a chapter to a critique group, their positive feedback inspired me. I returned to Minnesota, connected with Adair Lara, a memoir consultant, who encouraged me to keep going. A year later Twenty-Eight Snow Angels: A Widow’s Story of Love, Loss and Renewal finally reached the hands of readers.


What they’re saying:

“In this well written memoir, Diane tells of her emotional journey in touching detail.”—Mary Ann Grossmann, St. Paul Pioneer Press

“The reader is drawn in and captivated by Diane’s vivid account of her grief after the death of her loving husband . . . a powerful story of love, grief, hope and faith all can learn from.” –Mary Jacks, M.S. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Twenty Eight Snow Angels: A Widow’s Story of Love, Loss and Renewal by Diane Dettmann is an honest record of a widow’s difficult struggle that is inspirational…

Dettmann is brutally honest about her long battle with losing her beloved husband, and readers going through that dark valley will appreciate this story. It is well written and well edited. The author’s portrayal of herself, John Hohl, family members and her second husband, Allan, are believable and add to this memoir. This is a book that will touch many lives in a positive, helpful way.”—Alice D. for Readers Favorite

“Symbolically, the Twenty-Eight Snow Angels are for the 28 years that Diane and her husband, John, were married. One snowy night, Diane literally went out into her back yard, lay down in the snow and created snow angels. As you read her story, you will be amazed at the courage and fortitude Diane demands of herself as she faces daily challenges by pushing herself through her grief and learning to face a life alone and succeeding! It is indeed, “A BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN STORY OF A LIFE RENEWED”. Diane Dettmann has accomplished an extraordinary achievement in sharing the sadness and grief of her very private journey from Denial to Acceptance.”—Sharon D. Anderson, Ph.D.





Interview on KAXE 97.1 fm with Heidi Holtan

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Twenty-Eight Snow Angels

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Twenty-Eight Snow Angels



The following excerpt takes place six months after my husband’s death. It begins with a description of my struggle to make it on my own as I coped with my grief. Facing the responsibilities of a new job that I started a few weeks after John’s funeral only added more stress to my life.



Chapter 14 Comfort

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THINKING MY JOURNEY through grief would be like a fifty-yard dash and my life would return to normal when I crossed the one-year finish line in June, I kept pushing ahead. However, no matter how hard I tried, I still struggled to get through my days. My brother Tom’s and John’s deaths had created an intense anxiety about my own mortality. Life continued to be a daily process of putting one foot in front of the other and just getting through it. Tired and exhausted, my life tilted and swayed while my heart slammed in my chest. I felt like I was dying. Every afternoon the dismissal bell signaled the end of the day. When the children filed by my office with their packs bobbing on their backs and smiles stretched across their faces I knew I had made it through another day.

One gray spring afternoon as I drove home, a sharp pain ran across my chest. I gripped the steering wheel, praying the ache would stop. When the pain intensified I panicked. Instead of heading home on Interstate 94, I took the I-494 exit and drove to the hospital where my clinic was located. Terrified I was having a heart attack, I pulled into the emergency room parking lot. I sat in the car and tried to calm myself down, but nothing helped. My breathing quickened. My heart raced. Afraid I was dying, I ran toward the ER doors. Part of me wanted to turn back, but something pushed me on. I told the nurse at the desk I thought I was having a heart attack.

She guided me into a curtained area where she checked my pulse and blood pressure. A doctor appeared carrying a chart and a clipboard in his hand. He jotted down my symptoms and directed the nurse to run a few tests. After an EKG and a blood draw, the nurse hooked up an IV and rolled me into a private room. She adjusted my blanket, nestled the call button next to me and said she would be back shortly with my dinner.

For the first time since the night of John’s death, a sense of comfort rolled over me. When my supper arrived, I devoured the salad, vegetables and chicken. Even though the meal was served on a plastic tray, it tasted like a gourmet meal prepared at a fine restaurant, quite the change from microwave popcorn and frozen dinners. After dinner

I called my sister to tell her I was in the hospital and left a message at work that I would not be there in the morning. Later, the nurse stopped in to check my monitors and helped me wheel my IV into the bathroom. She settled me back into bed and said my doctor would run tests in the morning. Then she handed me a small cup with a white pill in it and poured me a glass of water. She said the pill would help me sleep. I swallowed the tablet and leaned back into the newly fluffed pillows. Feeling drowsy, I clicked off the television and closed my eyes. The hum of voices in the hallway lulled me to sleep.


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Welcome Debra Brenegan

Join me in welcoming Debra Brenegan to Highlighted Author.

In addition to her novel, Shame the Devil, which is an historical account of nineteenth-century American writer Fanny Fern, Debra Brenegan has also authored several other works that have recently appeared in CalyxTampa ReviewNatural BridgeThe Laurel ReviewRE:ALThe Southern Women’s ReviewThe Cimarron ReviewMilwaukee Magazine, Phoebe, and other publications.

She has received a Ragdale residency for her fiction and was a recent finalist for the John Gardner Memorial Fiction Prize, The Cincinnati Review’s Schiff Prose Prize, and the Crab Creek Review Fiction Prize.

Welcome, Debra.  Please tell us about yourself.

I grew up in the Milwaukee area and graduated with a B.A. in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I worked as a journalist and taught at Milwaukee Area Technical College before beginning my graduate work. I received my M.A. and Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing from The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I also taught. I now teach English and Women’s Studies at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.

During the school year, I live in a 130-year-old house in Fulton with my husband, Steve, and our elderly cat. We spend summers and school breaks in our native Milwaukee. When not teaching, writing, spending time with family, or driving back and forth to Wisconsin, I enjoy cooking, gardening, reading, and traveling.

I am currently working on another novel, set in Missouri, and on a short story collection.

Today we’re featuring your novel, Shame the Devil.  Tell us about it.

Shame the Devil tells the remarkable and true story of Fanny Fern (the pen name of Sara Payson Willis), one of the most successful, influential, and popular writers of the nineteenth century. A novelist, journalist, and feminist, Fern (1811-1872) outsold Harriet Beecher Stowe, won the respect of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and served as literary mentor to Walt Whitman. Scrabbling in the depths of poverty before her meteoric rise to fame and fortune, she was widowed, escaped an abusive second marriage, penned one of the country’s first prenuptial agreements, married a man eleven years her junior, and served as a nineteenth-century Oprah to her hundreds of thousands of fans. Her weekly editorials in the pages of the New York Ledger over a period of about twenty years chronicled the myriad controversies of her era and demonstrated her firm belief in the motto, “Speak the truth, and shame the devil.” Through the story of Fern and her contemporaries, including Walt Whitman, Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shame the Devil brings the intellectual and social ferment of mid-nineteenth-century America to life.

“There may be married people who do not read the morning paper. Smith and I know them not … It is not too much to say the newspapers are one of our strongest points of sympathy; that it is our meat and drink to praise and abuse them together; that we often in our imagination edit a model newspaper, which shall have for its motto, `Speak the truth, and shame the devil.'” — Fanny Fern

What they’re saying:

“In her wide-ranging way, Debra Brenegan turns an age of great social and artistic change–for the races, for women, for the country–into a narrative of compelling characters. This novel emerges from history and becomes something more valuable–great literary art. Brenegan’s Fanny, her family, and the cluster of historical characters come to us complicated and whole, demanding our attention.”
Robert Stewart, editor of New Letters

“Debra Brenegan will undoubtedly receive high praise for her superb portrait of Fanny Fern. Readers will gain an insightful look at this overlooked author and her firsthand account of American society during her time.”
— Historical Novels Review

“Much of this excellent novel is likely based on reality. Brenegan’s use of “faction,” a fiction-ish offshoot of the traditional biography, is the perfect approach for an insightful look at Fern’s inner world as well as the persona she revealed to the public.”
—ForeWord Reviews Magazine



Shame the Devil

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Chapter Seven

Sara Payson Willis Eldredge, Boston, Friday, December 22nd, 1848


Isn’t a “seedy” hat, a threadbare coat, or a patched dress, an effectual shower-bath on old friendships? Haven’t people a mortal horror of a sad face and a pitiful story? Don’t they on hearing it, instinctively poke their purses into the farthest, most remote corner of their pockets? . . . Ain’t they always “engaged” ever after, when you call to see ’em? Ain’t they near-sighted when you meet ’em in the street?—and don’t they turn short corners to get out of your way?—Fanny Fern, Olive Branch, March 18th, 1852

Sara pulled the warped door closed behind her, shook her freezing fingers, and climbed the boardinghouse’s steep side stairs, the very stairs she’d recently agreed to wash for five cents off the three-dollar-a-week room and board she paid the landlady, Mrs. Haufen. Deep within the folds of her pocket, the only one left without a hole, was a whole dollar and the other guilty lump—peppermint. Peppermint she’d  stolen. She’d sewed practically round the clock for old man Schueller this week, hoping to make more than the usual seventy-five cents for the week’s labor. She’d delivered one extra shirt and figured that since she was usually paid seventy-five cents for two shirts, that she’d make an extra thirty-seven, or maybe thirty-eight cents (it was the Christmas season after all). But Schueller had given her only the dollar, which made Sara tear up, as she so often did these days. When he’d asked her what she was upset about, and she’d told him, he’d smiled in that way that froze Sara’s insides and had said that she could get the extra thirteen cents for as many kisses. The extra money suddenly didn’t matter. Sara pulled the extended bill from Schueller’s clenched grip and stumbled away from his leering grin. Later, she would blame him for her thievery.

She wished she could find other employment. After Charly’s funeral, Hezekiah and her father had each agreed to give her a dollar and a quarter a week. Both devout church goers, they felt congregational eyes flutter from wretched, vocal Sara to their ample purses and knew nobody would understand their mutually agreed-upon assertion that headstrong Sara deserved to reap the hardship she’d sown. Hers was God’s lesson of humility and she wasn’t acquiescing a bit. Given that they knew she’d be able to earn at least fifty cents a week taking in sewing, as her sister Julia did, her room and board would be covered. Never mind the fact that the children needed shoes and clothes and the occasional book or paper toy. We understand about the needs of children, Charly’s mother, Mary Eldredge often told Sara, in her many attempts to coerce Sara into giving up Grace and Ellen to Hezekiah and herself. All the more reason to allow grandparents with means to have a fuller hand in the girls’ upbringing.

Sara knew what a fuller hand meant. It meant total control. It meant allowing the girls to live with the Eldredges and quite possibly giving up all her maternal rights forever. Well, she wouldn’t do it. Not as long as she had strength and a steel needle. She’d get faster at sewing, better. And she’d find more moral employers than the disgusting Schueller. And she’d never steal again. In fact, she’d just applied for a teaching position at quite a nice little school in downtown Boston. Sara felt hopeful because her sister Lucy’s husband, Josiah, was on the school’s board. He’d been in the drafty committee room when she’d had her little interview and had steered the committee away from dwelling too long on her lack of experience with algebra at Catharine Beecher’s seminary. Surely, if he had any say, the board would hire Sara. They would have to.

Sara reached the top of the three-story staircase and tapped at Widow Perkins’ door.

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The door opened on the hunch-shouldered, flitty-eyed old woman. “The girls went off with your sister,” Widow Perkins said. “In your room.”

Sara knew Julia was the only one of her sisters brave enough to visit her anymore. What a nice surprise. After her miserable day, Sara was more starved than usual for comfort.

The widow glanced down the dim hall at the closed door of Sara’s room. “I’ve just finished,” she said with a little grin and pulled Sara into the cool, dank room toward the one small window where she’d set her rickety chair to work by the light. On the chair were two pairs of small gray socks made of drab, cheap wool, but unmistakably brand new.

“Oh, thank you!” Sara said, nearly crying at the sight. Just last week, she’d had to cut the toes off of Grace’s shoes because her feet had grown so. Little Ellen’s shoes had been cut for a month. The worst part was not the cutting of the shoes, but looking at the raggedy, oft-mended dingy socks poking through the travesty. Another pair of new, warm socks would make the shoes seem tolerable.

Sara gave the widow her dollar and waited for her to count out change from a tattered purse she pulled from under her pillow, mostly in half-dimes. The widow was two cents short, which alarmed Sara—she wouldn’t have enough for the week’s board, as she’d spent her stair-washing half-dime on two extra scoops of coal. It had been so cold lately and Grace had started the week with a cough. Widow Perkins blinked and went back to search under the pillow. Sara inhaled sharply. Gently, she laid her hand on the widow’s frazzled irongray head and proclaimed the socks to be so well made that she wanted to pay a little extra for them, after all. The widow turned from the bed, wrinkled her brow as if in pain, then rested her forehead on Sara’s shoulder and cried, whether in relief, gratitude, or embarrassment, Sara didn’t know. Sara, at least, could borrow the two cents from Julia.

“Merry Christmas,” Sara said to the widow and kissed her good-bye. “I’ll bring you a little something from father’s house on Monday.”

“Bless your heart,” the widow said, and waved Sara off.

Sara tucked the socks into her pocket and felt, once again, the stick of stolen peppermint candy. She swallowed hard at the bile rising from her stomach. The stick had been partly crushed and was, apparently, pulled from the display jar and left on a dusty little “half-price” shelf on the grocer’s back wall. Sara had slipped it into her pocket with such grace it frightened her. Other things sometimes appeared on that shelf and Sara had seen other, poorer, people quietly slip these things into their pockets: bruised apples, nearly rancid butter wrapped in paper, or sometimes, small rough pouches containing a handful or so of molding beans. But, she’d never done it before—stolen. Until that day. After enduring the nauseating leers of Schueller and the disappointment of her pay, Sara had wandered to the little shelf and spied the sad peppermint stick, which had been ignored by the shuffles of drab poverty floating past. Only Sara had pocketed the crumbling sweet. Only Sara would ruin her soul stealing candy.

Sara walked to the room at the end of the hall, the absolute cheapest room in the house, worse than even Widow Perkins’ room, smaller, colder, but with a similar little window overlooking the clapboard side of the next boarding house. She poked her key through the lock and gave the skeletal door a hard push.

Julia was there! She was balanced on Sara’s three-legged sewing stool near the window, had a girl on each knee, and was reading a book.

“Mother!” the girls cried, jumping from Julia’s lap to embrace Sara hugged her darlings close and smiled full at Julia.

“I’ve just come from Lucy’s,” Julia said, indicating the book. “She said I could borrow this to read to the girls.”

“By all means, continue, then,” Sara said. “I’ll listen, too!”

Sara untied her bonnet and hung it on the nail, then reclined on the room’s lumpy horsehair bed, still wrapped in her shawl, to listen to Julia finish a story about princesses and pudding and glittering crowns and roast beef. Decadent food. Brimming tables of crockery and wine. Lace tablecloths and bowls of flowers. Genteel manners reigning supreme. Nobody forgotten. Nobody suffering. No hunger or cold or fear. Sara’s eyes fluttered, her breathing slowed, and then Sara suddenly saw Mother in the tale, sitting at the royal banquet next to sister Ellen. Oh, how radiant they looked, pink-cheeked and happy! Mother wore a turban made of ferns and she plucked one and blew it across the room to Sara, who caught it and tucked it into her bodice front. Beaming sister Ellen just ate and ate and ate.

Mary Stace was there, too, and the babies, and Lucy’s boys, but where, oh where? Sara whirled in dream circles, looked madly around and around and then she saw them, Charly, magnificent in black velvet, wearing his white satin wedding vest and holding little Mary’s hand. Little Mary was hopping up and down in the most exquisite shining silver shoes, pointing at Grace and Ellen sitting on Julia’s knee in the corner of the palace. Little Mary had a basketful of sweets she wanted to share with her sisters and so Charly let her run before folding the then-sobbing Sara into his hearty arms and whispering to her, “All is well, all is well, all is well . . .”



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Debra is available for readings or to speak with your group about historical fiction, Fanny Fern, or writing.  Please contact her agent, Lynn Wiese Sneyd, LWS Literary Services.